Sometime around midnight on May 1, 1779, British soldiers smashed through the wooden door of General Gold Selleck Silliman’s Fairfield, Connecticut home. They snatched him and his eldest son, William, from their beds.
The soldiers, accompanied by eight armed Tories, confiscated the general’s fusee, a pair of his pistols, his sword, and three hats (one of which was his baby’s). Fortunately the raiders missed the general’s personal papers. Always quick witted, Mary Noyes Fish Silliman, supposedly had hid them, along with the family silver, underneath her nightdress. General Silliman surrendered to protect the lives of his pregnant wife and youngest children. The captors marched the general and his son to the Connecticut coast where a whaleboat waited in the shallow waters. The boat ferried the pair across Long Island Sound to a prison in New York.
The British captured the elder Silliman because he had been a true thorn in their side. Silliman served in the militia, had fought in the battle of Long Island, and served during the colonists’ retreat to New York.
The elder Silliman, a well-off landowner and lawyer, enlisted in the army shortly before the war had erupted. As a cavalry officer he commanded the local militia in which he rose to the rank of Brigadier General and protected Connecticut’s southwest frontier.
Redcoats already occupied Westchester, New York, and Long Island. Now British troops set their sights on the Connecticut coast.[i] According to legend, the British wanted revenge on the small colony of Connecticut because it fiercely opposed British aggression and the suppression of Colonial rights. The redcoats hated this tiny colony and vowed to teach it, and its commander, a lesson. The Continental Army couldn’t know precisely when the British troops would attack, but General Gold Selleck Silliman did everything to keep the citizens safe.
Throughout the spring of 1779, British warships trolled Long Island Sound near Fairfield, Connecticut. That summer the fight neared the fields and forests of Weston, Connecticut, as British Major General William Tryon consumed himself with destroying the morale of the Connecticut people. He and commander Sir Henry Clinton launched a series of hit and run raids.
Mary Noyes Fish Silliman worried over her husband’s fate; she knew ghastly prison ships bobbed on the water, swallowing the unfortunate. However, calm prevailed. She gathered Gold Selleck, her infant son and his father’s namesake along with the rest of her family and servants and headed inland to North Stratford, a less perilous area where they hoped to wait out the war.
The British successfully struck New Haven in early July of 1779. Troops, with loyalist escorts, stormed Yale College. As British boots stomped through the grounds, faculty hurried about the brick walks carting books and other apparatus to safety. Meanwhile, additional British troops sailed toward Fairfield, where they landed on July 7 in the late afternoon.
The Continental Army could not withstand the assault. Waves of British redcoats seemed to wash ashore. They marched to Fairfield Center and burnt it to the ground. During this offensive, Major General William Tryon destroyed 83 houses, 54 barns, 47 shops and stores, two schools, two churches, a jail and a courthouse. Two years earlier, as General Tryon’s forces marched to and from the burning of Danbury, people fought and fled. Weston men defended their land and provided refuge for their fellow colonists. Weston women fled with their children to Devil’s Den, a nearby wilderness spot.
Meanwhile, Mary Silliman spent the summer safe from the guns. Pregnant, and worried about her husband’s condition, she carried on the business of homemaking. Years later, she told young Benjamin Silliman about his birth on August 8, 1779: “Even when on that dreadful night, when a band of armed soldiers broke upon our dwelling, and took from my arms my dear protector…and never shall forget the memorable Sabbath morning, where at the hour of six your birth was announced.”[ii]
With no inkling of when, or if, her husband would return, Mary Silliman tried to fill his space. As a woman who had already lost two children, Mary Silliman doted on Benjamin and his older brother, Gold. Mary’s first husband John Noyes, died when he was thirty-one-years-old. She also already grieved over two children, the first daughter Rebecca died at age six months. The Silliman’s other daughter, Mary, died at age four.[iii]
Ultimately, the British freed General Silliman. The prisoner exchange transpired between two fishing boats anchored in the middle of Long Island Sound. In 1784 the government failed to reimburse Gold Selleck Silliman for expenses used to support his troops. Unable to furnish proper receipts, he personally covered the expenditures. His family’s wealth thus depleted, the Silliman household felt that Gold Silliman not only contributed his fortune, but effectively his life, to the cause of freedom.
Later, Benjamin Silliman, who would become one of the nation’s most renowned scientists, told veterans of the American Revolution that “the interruption of domestic happiness, the exhaustion of public and private wealth, and the immense sacrifice of lives by which our revolution was accomplished, were esteemed a cheap price for the preservation of our ancient privileges, and for the assurance of future security.” [iv]
And thus, from infancy, Gold Silliman, Jr. and Benjamin Silliman learned the value of serving one’s country. As part of the first generation to come of age after the war, Benjamin had the luxury of pursuing nearly any profession, just as John Adams had envisioned: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture.”[v] Where Silliman’s father had studied war, Benjamin Silliman could study mathematics, politics or science. Their father’s legacy endured.
[v] John Adams. Letter to Abigal Adams, May 12, 1780. Adams Family Correspondence, www.masshist.org/adams/quotes.cfm (accessed March 2, 2010).